Communing with, and through, nature

Written By

Sebastian Moreno

What does it mean to belong, to feel represented and seen?  

Sebastian Moreno found himself pondering these questions when he set out to become a wildlife conservationist. As an environmental conservation Ph.D. candidate, biological intern for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and passionate falconer, Sebastian’s a nature-lover through and through.  

Yet, despite his gusto for the outdoors, he felt something was missing: affirmation of his Latino identity within these spaces. It can be hard to believe that nature is truly for everyone if you don’t see yourself represented within it, Sebastian explained. 

“I’d consider myself a confident person, and I’m used to being the ‘token person’,” said Sebastian, whose family is from Colombia, “but it’s so important to see people that look like you…speak like you.”   

Then he learned about Latino Outdoors. 

Sebastian (left), Hispanic Access Foundation Intern Guillermo Alvarez (2nd from left) and Latino Outdoors members at a birding event hosted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Beginning as a simple blog based in California, Latino Outdoors now has in-person chapters nationwide, with the goal of engaging and connecting Latino families and youth with nature. Emphasizing itself as a communidad first and organization second, the group strives to build safe spaces while centering cultura y familia as part of the outdoor narrative. 

The mission statement immediately struck a chord with Sebastian. There was only one problem: There was no chapter in Western Massachusetts. 

So, Sebastian offered to help get one up and running. 

Safe space and a sense of place 

Fast-forward to today, and Sebastian volunteers as the program coordinator for Latino Outdoors Western Massachusetts. He and his team organize community events, taking folks hiking, kayaking, birding, overnight camping, and more. The group really took off during the COVID-19 pandemic as a safe outlet for community members to relieve stress and breathe some fresh air.  

“The big goal was just to create a space for families and each other,” Sebastian said. “It’s a great opportunity for storytelling and to share our culture and histories with each other.”  

The Western Massachusetts chapter of Latino Outdoors has become a strong partner for the Service’s Northeast Region, too. Over the past few years, the two organizations have routinely worked together to host outdoor events at the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge in Hadley, Massachusetts. 

Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Services Manager Jen Lapis teaches Springfield community members about conservation at a birding event hosted by Latino Outdoors
Latino Outdoors and the Service partner up to engage Holyoke community members outside

When they’re not at the refuge, Service staff and Latino Outdoors members visit communities in Springfield and Holyoke – cities with prominent Latino populations – building relationships and introducing people to the nature right outside their doors. Everything needed to make people feel welcome is provided, whether it’s binoculars, interpretive guides or simply a free lunch. 

Dismantling real and perceived barriers – by having bilingual staff or by making events accessible via public transportation routes, for example – lets Latino communities know and feel that these places are for them, Sebastian explained. 

Leveraging our strengths 

With a foot in each world, Sebastian can see that the Service and Latino Outdoors share the same fundamental goal: connecting people with nature.  

“It’s all about leveraging [the Service’s] resources, with our people. We’re all trying to do the same thing. Let’s work together towards it,” Sebastian said. 

Service staff, like Assistant Special Agent in Charge Eric Marek, have seen firsthand the value of creating a sense of community. His wife, a former Service employee of Puerto Rican descent, is also part of the group.  

Sebastian Moreno and Latino Outdoors members search the sky for birds

“She really ended up rediscovering her Hispanic heritage through Latino Outdoors,” Eric said. “That was one of those amazing moments when you really see your partner grow and change. It wasn’t always that way.” 

Eric and Sebastian agree that widespread support for the Service’s mission must start with that feeling of belonging. After that, a sense of personal responsibility towards natural resource conservation can take shape. 

“There’s a whole segment of our country’s population that still isn’t involved. If we really want to protect the nature that we all love, we need to engage everyone,” Eric said. 

In the near-term, Sebastian has his eyes on new milestones for his Latino Outdoors chapter. Hiking is one thing; fishing is another. Despite strong historical and cultural ties to the activity, hurdles like the necessary permits and equipment can make fishing less accessible for Latinos and communities of color. Even more reason to continue building off the strengths of partnerships, Sebastian emphasized.     

Positive changes will come with time. The important thing is that the conversation – whether in English or Spanish – keeps going. 

Story Tags

Connecting people with nature
Environmental justice
Wildlife viewing